RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service/AP

Is This the Start of a ‘Cool War’ With Russia?

Washington and Moscow have already crossed a point of no return: Get ready for retaliatory moves across the globe. By Michael Hirsh

The United States and Russia have both crossed a Rubicon in the Ukraine crisis, and Washington must now confront the likelihood that if the standoff continues, it will dramatically alter relations on a much larger map than Eastern Europe, inviting Russian recalcitrance in crisis zones as far afield as East Asia, Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan.

While hitting Moscow with sanctions that a senior administration official described Monday as "by far" the most severe since the Cold War, it is clear the White House is aware of the perils. Senior officials stressed that President Obama was determined to leave the way open to Russian President Vladimir Putin to back down from annexing Crimea following Sunday's referendum, in which 97 percent of voters approved secession from Ukraine.

In response to what it called an illegitimate, Moscow-orchestrated vote, the administration announced it was freezing and blocking the U.S. assets of seven senior Russian officials whom U.S. officials described as "clearly people who are very close to President Putin" and "the key ideologists and implementers" of his Ukraine policy, in addition to senior Ukrainians, including ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.

But the administration specifically avoided targeting the Russian leader himself. "We have the ability to rev up our pressure," said a senior administration official, "or to de-escalate. "

U.S. officials said they hoped a peaceful diplomatic resolution was still possible. Even so, they said a newly revealed Russian proposal to create a federated republic out of Ukraine, giving each region considerable autonomy, was unacceptable because the interim government in Kiev is already deciding itself on the country's fate, including a new constitution.

"The days are long past when world powers meet and make decisions about the future of democratic countries," one senior Obama administration official said. Nonetheless, he added, "there is a space here for a diplomatic discussion on these issues."

Putin is expected to speak to a joint session of the Duma, Russia's parliament, on Tuesday afternoon, and the Duma may consider formally annexing Crimea by week's end.

Putin faces a very real crisis of economic and political isolation. This is especially true after a vote in the U.N. Security Council in which 13 countries condemned the Russian moves, and China, which has been Moscow's longtime fellow traveler on many other issues, abstained in a rebuff to Putin. The European Union also said it would freeze assets of and ban travel for 21 officials in Russia and Ukraine. "These are by far the most comprehensive sanctions applied to Russians since the end of the Cold War," a senior administration said in a telephone call with reporters, stressing that they are far more severe than those applied after Russia intervened in Georgia in 2008.

In the past, nothing has incensed Putin more than what he deems interference in his internal affairs involving the targeting of Russian officials, especially those close to him; and the Russian president is unlikely to retreat any time soon. The gravest danger now remains that, in threatening to annex Crimea, Putin will feel pressured to follow up by sending Russian forces into other parts of eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin knows that without Crimea, ethnic Russians amount to a distinct minority in the rest of the country.

Unless he doubles down with more military pressure, Putin could thus upend his own strategy of co-opting Ukraine into a Eurasian Union, instead making it easier for the rest of the country, dominated by ethnic Ukrainians, to vote to join the European Union and NATO. While the West is not considering military force, U.S. officials are already making "signaling" moves by sending more fighter jets to Poland and Lithuania. Russia's response, as communicated by a TV announcer over the weekend, was to remind Washington that Russia is "the only country in the world capable of turning the U.S.A. into radioactive dust."

Judging from his past actions, it should be expected that Putin will, at the very least, retaliate by obstructing U.S. initiatives in other places. Before the crisis, the Russian president was already working hard at deepening ties with China, forming a Eurasian Union to counter European community, and delivering countermoves to Western initiatives in the Middle East.

The Kremlin may well decide it has a larger stake now in supplying the military forces of Putin's ally, Bashar al-Assad, in Syria's civil war, and it's no surprise that the Syrian dictator has responded by launching new military offensives against the rebels. Putin has already made his sympathy for other autocrats in the region known, for example by encouraging Egypt's junta leader, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to run for president.

It would be surprising if Moscow did not also find ways to delay or even stymie the nuclear talks with Iran being conducted by five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, which include Russia, and Germany. Moscow had already planned to help Tehran build several nuclear reactors. Until now, Russia has also been more cooperative than not in acceding to the supply of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan; that could quickly change, as well.

The upshot is that the crisis over Ukraine is likely to reorder global relations in a significant way. The U.S.-Russia rivalry that was being vociferously debated as recently as the 2012 presidential election, when President Obama mocked GOP nominee Mitt Romney's argument that Russia had become America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe," is today quickly becoming conventional wisdom in Washington.

A kind of "cool war" between the two countries—one that is not quite yet "cold"—may already be emerging. While this is clearly nothing yet like the great ideological struggle and arms race of the Cold War, U.S. officials may soon need to consider a new strategy involving the containment of Russian countermoves around the world.